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Reserve Citizen Airman takes the fight to COVID-19

Photo of female Air Force Reservist standing behind boxes of personal protective equipment.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Patricia Herbelin, 307th Medical Squadron readiness and logistics officer, stands behind a pile of personal protective equipment in Waco, Texas. Herbelin moved more than 250,000 pieces of PPE in her civilian capacity with Heart of Texas Healthcare Coalition. (courtesy photo)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Texas, Lt. Col. Patricia Herbelin did not go into lockdown; she fought back.

The Air Force Reserve officer took the fight to the novel coronavirus using a strong work ethic and skills learned during her 19-year military career.

In her civilian role as the Health Care Preparedness Coordinator for the Heart of Texas Health Care Coalition, Herbelin is responsible for ensuring personal protective equipment is distributed to health care workers, hospitals and nursing homes in a five-county region, including the city of Waco.  

Though the Heart of Texas Health Care Coalition regularly prepares for natural disasters and health care crises, the size and scope of the pandemic strained its abilities.

The nonprofit found itself struggling to keep up with demand and trying to adjust to a very fluid situation.  So, Herbelin used the strongest weapon she had in her arsenal to fight the disease: hard work.

“Sixteen-hour days were not unusual,” said Herbelin. “Knowing that a health care worker might get sick if I didn’t do my job is what kept me going.”

 Herbelin maintained that pace four weeks straight without a day off, but shrugged off the notion her efforts were anything special.

“My contribution to the response doesn’t compare to the care given by doctors, nurses and health care professionals, but I’m honored to have been able to help provide life-saving PPE to our health care workers,” she said.  

Herbelin’s background as a logistics and readiness officer with the 307th Medical Squadron helped her move more than 250,000 pieces of PPE to hospitals and nursing homes throughout her region. Still, she constantly had to work around shortages during the pandemic’s peak.

“It seemed like we traded one shortage for another,” she explained. “At first we could not get enough masks, and when that was fixed, we could not get enough gowns.”  

Herbelin noticed parallels between her civilian job and her role as an Air Force medical officer.­­ She drew on those similarities to establish and maintain lines of communication with a host of local and state agencies, coordinating efforts to build adequate PPE stockpiles and distribute them efficiently. 

“The teamwork and communication necessary to get the supplies where they need to go has been evident in the military exercises I’ve been a part of,” said Herbelin.  

Her sense of readiness and focus also played a big role in her ability to keep local health care professionals supplied. At the end of one 16-hour day, Herbelin dropped off PPE to a nursing home that had made a request for delivery the following morning.

She said that delivery could have waited, but it was not worth the risk in case something went wrong during the night.

Herbelin’s extra efforts, along with those of thousands of other essential personnel, helped blunt the pandemic in Texas.  The pressure has eased, but she still faces 12-hour days while juggling her military responsibilities. But, the lieutenant colonel has taken it all in stride.

“Really being focused on the mission is what gets the work done,” said Herbelin of her efforts. “It’s a mindset that not having a day off is okay, if I am focused.”